John G. Neihardt
State Historic Site
Bancroft, Nebraska; Cuming County
Author of Black Elk Speaks, Cycle of the West, and numerous other works of prose and poetry, John G. Neihardt is the Poet Laureate (a poet whose efforts were officially recognized) in Perpetuity (forever) of Nebraska. To commemorate his life and work, the John G. Neihardt State Historic Site was established on the site of his former home in Bancroft, Nebraska.
The site consists of the Neihardt Museum, 1890 Historic Study, Sacred Hoop Garden, and “Sharing the Great Vision” bronze sculpture. It is commonly referred to as the Neihardt Center.
In the early 1960s, the house in which Neihardt lived no longer existed; the only structure remaining on the property was a small outbuilding used by Neihardt as a study. In 1965, Bancroft resident Evelyn Vogt founded the John G. Neihardt Study Restoration Project with the purpose of preserving the one-room study building. In 1967, the Study Restoration Project was incorporated as the John G. Neihardt Foundation, for the purpose of constructing a building to house a museum, library, and research facility to preserve Neihardt’s works and effects. In 1974, State Senator Blair Richendifer of Walthill introduced into the Nebraska Legislature L.B. 855 that appropriated the “sum of two hundred thousand dollars for the purpose of constructing the John G. Neihardt Foundation.”
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John Neihardt Biography:
Born on January 8, 1881, in Sharpsburg, Illinois, to Nicholas and Alice Neihardt, 11-year-old John Neihardt moved to Wayne, Nebraska, in 1891, with his mother and two sisters. He had also lived in a sod house in northwestern Kansas and in the Missouri River town of Kansas City.
This exposure to the richness and variety of life on the plains shaped the direction of his life work. But Neihardt himself pointed to a fever dream he had at age 12, in which he saw himself floating through space and felt the presence of a “spirit brother,” as the event that determined his life work as a poet and inspired the content of that work.
While living in Wayne, John’s mother Alice worked as a seamstress. One of her clients was the family of James Pile, first president of Nebraska Normal College (now Wayne State College). Mr. Pile recognized John’s precociousness and hired him as the campus bell ringer so that he could pay his tuition. The first bell was at 6:30 a.m., and then twice every 50 minutes until 6:00 p.m., Monday-Friday.
Neihardt graduated with his teaching degree at the age of 15, but was too young to teach. He continued his education and got his Bachelor’s degree by completing the scientific program in 1897 at age 16. His first teaching job, at a country school, began in December 1898, at a rate of $30 a month for four months. He was provided corn cobs for fuel and had to do the janitorial work himself.
He’d been writing poetry since age 12. He returned to that vocation when he moved to Bancroft in 1900, where his family moved when his sister got a teaching job. For a year he became the city reporter for the Omaha Daily News, a job for which he was ill-suited – he was a writer whose imagination often kept him preoccupied while other reporters tracked down scoops. From 1901-1903 he was the owner-editor of the Bancroft Blade, and worked as a clerk for a trader on the Omaha Reservation. Neihardt respected the traditions of the Omaha, and in return he earned their respect. They invited him into their lodges to share their way of life and learn their stories.
Neihardt was friends with the important LaFlesche family, descendants of Omaha Chief Estamahza (Iron Eyes) LaFlesche. Susette LaFlesche was the interpreter for the Ponca leader Standing Bear during the trial that first determined that an Indian is a person within the meaning of law. Susan LaFlesche Picotte was the first Native American doctor, whose hospital still stands in the town of Walthill on the Omaha Reservation.
Neihardt’s acquaintance with the Omaha and Winnebago Indians led him to an interest in the Sioux, their customs and traditions. He traveled the plains and lived the land first-hand.
John married Mona Martinsen Neihardt on November 29, 1908, after a six-month correspondence she initiated after reading his book of poetry, A Bundle of Myrrh. They met for the first time, sight unseen, the day before they were married. The young couple settled in Bancroft, where the poet built a studio with a skylight for his wife, who was a skilled sculptress. They had four children: Enid (1911), Sigurd (1913), Hilda (1916), and Alice (1921).
The family moved to Minneapolis in 1912 where John was the literary editor for the Minneapolis Journal. In 1913 they returned to Bancroft, until moving to Branson, Missouri, in 1920. From 1926-1931, the Neihardts lived in St. Louis while he edited the literary page for the newspaper, but they kept their home in Branson until 1948 when the University of Missouri offered John a job. Neihardt then purchased Skyrim Farm, a small acreage outside of Columbia, Missouri, where he built a Sioux prayer garden like the sacred hoop in Black Elk’s vision. He and Mona often hosted dinner and fireside chats for students. His course, “Epic America,” based on his book The Cycle of the West, was so popular that it filled lecture halls and was even offered on videotape. Cycle of the West earned Neihardt the apt moniker “American Homer.”
He became a published author at 19; married at 27; started his major work, The Cycle of the West at 31; and became Nebraska’s Poet Laureate at 40. At 45 he was literary editor for the St. Louis Post Dispatch, and at 68 became poet-in-residence and lecturer in English at the University of Missouri.
In his 80s, Neihardt returned to his spiritual home of Nebraska, living with friends and continuing his writing and personal appearances. He was working on the second volume of his autobiography, Patterns and Coincidences, when he died of natural causes at home in Missouri on November 24, 1973, at age 92.
On what would have been their 65th wedding anniversary, John and Mona’s daughters, Hilda and Alice, mingled their ashes together and dropped them from a plane over the Missouri River.
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